PCT Day 8: Windy Desert

It was windy all night, windy all morning, and windy all day today.

The trail stayed high along the ridge of the mountains for most of the day, which meant continuing sweeping views but, again: wind. We got kinda sick of the wind.

The morning’s main event was making it to the Third Gate Water Cache, an impressively organized and stocked cache of bottled water—gallon jugs, six jugs to a box, and many, many boxes in what was originally three tarp-covered stacks. Enough hikers have come through to reduce that to one and a half stacks. Someone buys? donates? the water and then trucks it in on a dirt road to a spot about a quarter mile off the trail. The generosity and support extended to thru-hikers continues to amaze us.

 
After the cache it was back to desert hiking. Not particularly compelling desert hiking, honestly. The sun beats down, it’s too windy for the umbrellas to provide shade while walking, and then it’s guaranteed that as soon as you want to stop for lunch, there’s no shade to be found.

We decided to aim for the next water source as our stopping point for the night, which would bring our mileage to 18 total. Eighteen miles is most definitely farther than I’ve ever backpacked in a day—though still less than what we’re going to need to work up to doing daily in order to beat winter to Canada.

It was a long day. No shade, more of the same meh desert, and enough miles to make my ankles start complaining. But this is part of thru-hiking, too—I’m guessing it’s the bulk of it, honestly—you just keep walking, even when it’s not especially fun. Not every day is a magical vista around every corner. But eventually you get to a stopping point, you eat some rehydrated mashed potatoes, and you pass the eff out by 9PM. Then you get up and do it again the next day.

We made it to Mile 100 today!

 
18 miles hiked, Mile 83.2 to 101.2 Barrel Spring

PCT Day 7: From Julian to Cacti

After sleeping in, taking more showers, and enjoying the Julian Hotel’s “two course breakfast” (house-made granola and waffles with fruit), we ventured back out onto Julian’s main street, where it was a hiker reunion every ten feet or so — Kara and Allie, Hannes and Julia, lots of people we hadn’t seen in a few days.

We got a ride back to Scissors Crossing with the cook/owner of the Julian Cafe, a badass lady who shared tips for keeping snakes out of your pack/sleeping bag (circle a length of rope on the ground around it—then she insisted that Hannes take about two pounds of rope).

In some respects, the line between thru-hikers and homeless people is demarcated solely by 900 fill down and carbon fiber tent poles. Because there we were, post-hitch-hiking, napping in the dust under the Highway 78 overpass for a few hours, waiting out the midday heat. Two fighter jets swept by at one point, flying low.

We were waiting for it to cool down because from Scissors Crossing you look up and see the next section of trail switchbacking up about one thousand feet of sandy mountainside. I was expecting it to be a miserable slog, but it was actually my favorite section of trail so far because it wound through the most spectacular cacti I’ve ever seen.

 

The hillsides were a Dr Seuss wonderland of cacti. I’ve never seen so many different kinds, so densely packed, covering so much area. It was—and I don’t use this term lightly—amazeballs.

 

 

The wind was blowing fiercely the whole way up, but the trail continued to be beautiful, snaking up along the hillsides as the sun sunk lower in the sky. We found a site partially sheltered from the wind (next to the Germans, Hannes and Julia) and decided to try our first night of cowboy camping, which is sleeping out under the stars without a tent. We haven’t done this before because someone who shall remain nameless has a bit of a bug phobia, but there was no sign of bugs and no chance of rain, so we went for it.

 

Lying warm in a sleeping bag, looking up at a night sky filled with stars, watching a satellite glide by—it’s not a bad way to fall asleep.

5.8 miles hiked, Mile 77.4 to 83.2 windy tent site

Photos: PCT Days 2 & 3

Photos from Day 2, Hauser Creek at Mile 15.4 to Boulder Oaks Campground at Mile 26:

And photos from Day 3, Mile 26 to Burnt Rancheria Campground at Mile 41.5:

PCT Day 6

No one is clean anymore.

All the pristine white sun shirts and crisp khaki adventure pants from that first day? The layers of sweat and dirt they’ve accumulated are truly amazing. When you’re hiking this far for this long, you don’t bring multiple outfits—just the necessary layers to keep you warm/cool/dry/safe. So everyone’s wearing the same thing every day, and the transition from “just walked out of REI” to “hiker trash” was pretty rapid.

We’re also all completely on hiker time. We camped next to about a dozen people last night, and everyone was in their tents going to sleep at 8:10PM. You’ve walked all day, you’ve eaten, it’s dark… time for bed. Nine PM is known as “hiker midnight.” And the early risers were up at 4:30AM to start walking before the heat of the day set in. (This was not us—but we were hiking by 6:45AM.)

So nothing is clean anymore, and I’m also really starting to smell like an unwashed hippie. Which is part of why getting to Julian today for a shower and a night in an actual bed was so exciting.

We hiked 9 miles down into the first legit, not-effing-around desert we’ve encountered so far: cacti, bare sand, and real heat. It was a long, hot last few miles to Scissors Crossing, but I was in power-through mode: shower, shower, shower.

 

 

We got our first hitch of the trip with a very nice couple from San Diego who said they had teenagers so don’t worry about getting their minivan dirty. They dropped us off in the quaint and touristy town of Julian, where we picked up our second resupply box and got a room at the Julian Hotel, which looks far too nice for hiker trash and yet has a bright pink sign welcoming PCT hikers and offering special rates.

We gave them our truly gross clothes, which they launder as a complimentary service (!!!!), and then made an unholy mess of our room’s shower and beautiful white towels. Next was Mom’s Pie House, where PCT hikers can show their thru-hiking permit and get a free slice of (really, really good) pie à la mode. Julian is a magical place for hikers—a town that makes us feel special and welcome rather than a filthy annoyance. I mean, the Julian Hotel offers a 20% discount for hikers, when it should really be a 20% surcharge to cover all the cleaning products it will take to make the shower floor white again. It boggles the mind.

 

There are tons of hikers in town—some new to us and some familiar, including the two 20-something-year-old brothers who passed us on the first day and who we thought we’d never see again. (They were taking a few days off while one recovered from an Achilles tendon injury.) The rest of the day was “afternoon tea” at the hotel and Bananagrams with fellow hikers Andy and Allison, then dinner and beer at the Italian restaurant across the street. It’s been a very nice and necessary break.

9 miles hiked, Mile 68.4 to 77.4 Scissors Crossing

PCT Days 4 & 5

Day 4 started out well, with a giant breakfast at a table full of thru-hikers in Mount Laguna. Next stop was the Laguna Mountain Sports and Supply, the most densely packed store I’ve ever been in—and that’s including Third World corner stores. It had everything you could ever imagine needing in the outdoors, including all the nerdy specialty gear you end up using as a long-distance backpacker (titanium pocket cleats? kevlar bear bag? Check!) Perfectly positioned at 41 miles into the PCT—when the consequences of bad gear choices have had a few days to sink in—the store has a constant stream of thru-hikers replacing gear, adding gear, and ditching gear (which creates one of the best hiker boxes you’ll ever find: tents, air mattresses, sleeping bag liners, it’s got it all).

After picking up a few things ourselves (waterproof matches, another fuel canister, and a water bladder to replace my old one that sprang a leak on Day 2), we retrieved  our first resupply box.  Since we’re a day ahead of schedule we were already ditching food in hiker boxes. (Hiker boxes, btw, are bins at resupply points where hikers discard unwanted food, gear, clothing, etc, and browse for anything that they’re lacking.) 

Hiking out of Mount Laguna, the trail paralleled the highway for a while—lots of motorcyclists out for weekend rides. We left the forest and started following the edge of the arid mountains, with spectacular desert views stretching off to the east, thousands of feet below. On the trail it’s easy to forget what day of the week it is, but this was Saturday, so we were passing boy scout troops and day hikers carrying their desert-tired dogs.

At the end of the day, Andrew pointed out that we were 2% of the way to Canada—which sounded like a big accomplishment to me.

 

Day 5 brought more real desert hiking. Air shimmering with heat and hikers huddled under bushes in tiny patches of shade. On the trail we stepped over desiccated poops from some unknown animal (coyote?). We haven’t seen much wildlife variety so far—hundreds of little brown lizards, one horny toad, and a baby goat on a leash in Lake Morena. 

We’re starting to see more and more cacti—newly blooming prickly pear and some leggy spiny things. I’ve always found it poetic when writers include lists of the flowers or trees they see—there’s something romantic about calling everything by its name. I know Indian paintbrush and manzanita, but everything else gets labeled as spiky purple flowers, small blue flowers, hot pink vagina flowers, pale orange vagina flowers (Georgia O’Keefe was onto something), and what I classify as general desert scrub brush. I’ll save my poetry for something else.

After a long, long walk down from the hills we camped next to a water tank in a tent village of about 13 hikers. We’re seeing more new people as everyone’s slightly different paces start to intersect. The desert views continue to be spectacular.

  

Day 4: 11.2 miles hiked, Mile 41.5 to 52.7, Pioneer Mail Picnic Area
Day 5: 15.7 miles hiked, Mile 52.7 to 68.4 Rodriguez Spring Road